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June 11, 2024

5 Flyers thoughts: Where do Dan Hilferty and Keith Jones take the team next?

The Flyers just missed out on the playoffs in a rebuilding season, but that might not be their next measure of success.

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Flyers-Fan-Salute-Capitals-4.15.2024-NHL.jpg Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

The Flyers surprised a lot of people this past season, but where do they go next?

With clear heads and time to process what had been a wild season as the focus gradually shifts toward the NHL Draft at the end of the month, Flyers governor Dan Hilferty and president of hockey ops Keith Jones met with the media for their own end-of-season/state-of-the-union style debriefing last week in Voorhees.

We're a bit late to the party here (I was on vacation last week, sorry), but the two did discuss a few things of note regarding the direction the club is taking after surprising many but ultimately collapsing down the stretch and just missing out on what could've been an upset playoff appearance. 

Here's what stood out...

Now that the dust has settled

The Flyers' season ended with a down-to-the-wire finish that left them short of the playoffs in Game 82. They had a grip on a postseason spot for nearly the entire season, but then let it slip away  in the home stretch. 

They got banged up, slumps hit at the worst possible time, Sam Ersson got played into the ground and Ivan Fedotov got thrown into the goaltending fire as soon as he got off the plane, and even with favorable matchups over the last couple weeks of the season – against some of the league's worst in Montreal, Columbus, and Chicago – the Flyers just couldn't keep up and fell apart

But now that there's been a good amount of time to process it, here's a bit about how Jones ultimately sees the 2023-24 season:

"I do think there's been some incredible growth in that regard. I think some of the disappointment and the losses at the end of the season is going to be something that our players carry with them. I think it's going to be valuable for them. We didn't lose to the best teams in the league. We lost to some of the worst teams in the league. It wasn't playoff teams ramping up their play and taking advantage of us. It was us overlooking the opponents that were playing. There's valuable lessons in that. Does it diminish what our guys accomplished throughout the year? I don't think it does. Does having the 12th pick overall help us in this draft? It does. Is it something that we were hoping for as our guys were battling for the playoffs? No, but we have to make good on it now."

The Flyers will also have another pick late in the first round to work with as well (courtesy of the Claude Giroux trade with Florida from two years ago) and have repeatedly made it clear that all eyes are still on the future.

But actually getting there is the tricky part, along with having the patience and foresight to execute a rebuilding team, especially one that isn't taking the direct path of bottoming out for as many chances at a high pick as possible. 

They're pushing forward, but what does forward look like now? At least in the immediate future?

The next step

Well, no one is committing to making the playoffs as the next milestone, at least not publically. GM Danny Brière wouldn't at his end-of-season presser, and last week, Hilferty noted that the Metro division isn't exactly expected to get any easier, especially with the chance the the Devils could bounce back after a down year. 

Much of Jones' and Hilferty's focus still seems to be on developing a healthy environment internally and on re-establishing the image of the Flyers as a serious team again. 

Improving the roster and the on-ice results will come along with that, but as for what their immediate ambitions are, Jones said:

"You don’t want to take a step back. You want to make sure that you continue to build the culture. I think that it’s an everyday thing. You have to pay attention to it. You have to be around. It was great that Hilf was around as much as he was. Including road games, which is very unusual but very welcomed. Our players sensed that they feel like they are part of something important. 

"I do think that when you play for the Philadelphia Flyers, I know what that feels like. Our fans started to really kind of get a sense for what our team is all about and supported them throughout the season. Attendance was getting better, and the building was much more exciting than it had been over the last few years. We want to continue to build on that feeling, and you do that by playing well, in some cases overachieving, and playing with a chip on your shoulder by making sure that you're out there and trying to continue to push this forward and make sure you're a part of it when we turn the corner."

And for what it's worth, the Flyers did seem to attract some of the city's wider attention again over the course of the season.

The Wells Fargo Center is by no means a packed house right now, but it did get fuller and louder as the Flyers continued to hold their own against a lot of the league's better teams – well, you know, up until they couldn't anymore.

There's something there, but there is still very much a long ways to go. 

Getting in sync

But to recognize that and really work on it, it took developing a whole lot of self-awareness of where the organization had really been over the past few years.

Coming out of the 2020 playoff bubble, whatever magic that Flyers team had just completely vanished and then aggressively slipped into an aging, uncompetitive, and apathetic mess that was completely out of sorts from the top on down. 

Hilferty took over as the Flyers' governor last summer, and recounting the year that was, hinted at a number of issues that stemmed largely from the hockey and business sides being completely out of synce with one another.

Getting those on the same page was an immediate priority, one that still needs work, but showed signs of getting there with the Cutter Gauthier trade back in January, when the Flyers' messaging from the top on down the second it happened – from Hilferty to Jones to Brière, Tortorella and even the players down in the locker room postgame – ran entirely consistent.

Said Hilferty:

"When [Comcast chairman Brian Roberts] and I agreed that I would take this role, it was, 'Oh by the way... Oh by the way,' and you can name the things that we are facing as they kind of unearthed themselves as the season went on. We had frank conversations about it. We dialogued continuously between business and hockey. We understood the hockey ramifications of these various things. I will use the [Jamie Drysdale] trade as an example. When we became aware of this, these guys [Brière and Jones] right away, we huddled and began to think about how we would go about it. We tried to do it in a way that, for obvious reasons, was as quiet as we could. They knew they wanted to get value, and we feel really good about the value that we got in Jamie Drysdale, but that was a challenge that I wasn't expecting, frankly. 

"In this new role, it really solidified my feeling about these three individuals, particularly Jonesy and Danny. As Jonesy said, 'no ego.' Let's talk this through. Let's make sure we are aligned with the business side, that the business side is aligned with us, and do what we need to do. It actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise."

On-ice-wise, the jury's still out on that. Gauthier's skill and high ceiling didn't disappear on the way to Anaheim and Drysdale has some injury history to dispel and improvements to make to his game as a defenseman. 

But as it concerns proving that the Flyers are a club that can competently navigate an extremely tough circumstance – like ne of your top prospects suddenly not wanting to play for you – yeah, it might have been.

A destination again

Not all that long ago, it wasn't all that uncommon to hear the Flyers pop up on the rumor mill when it came to big-name free agents and trade targets. 

Granted, a large part of that was former GM Paul Holmgren's aggressive nature – salary cap be damned – but the other part: Philadelphia was a place to play, a place that would give you a chance to win and a pretty decent one at that. 

But they're not that right now. They haven't been for a while. And their cap situation won't allow them to be one anytime soon (P.S. – enjoy CapFriendly while it lasts). 

But Jones said that part of the work they're trying to do now is so that once the cap does clear up – and, hopefully, when Michkov does come over – they'll be far enough along to be ready to make a splash. 

They'll be a team on the rise, a team that's ready to do some damage, and place where the league's best are going to finally want to be again.

Said Jones:

"I do think the messaging leaving the building was something that we really wanted to concentrate on, from employees to players. We wanted it to be an environment where people felt good about what they were doing and where we were headed. I do think that that's something that has occurred over the last year. I would echo what [Hilferty] said. We still obviously have a long way to go. We're keeping our eye on that prize, but it does start within. 

"I do think there's been a lot of progress made on the team coming together and the players enjoying playing here again. When we're in a position to go out and get a premier player through free agency, this is going to be a destination that they want to come to again. I do think that's part of the process here starting last year and over this season as well before we flip and start to be a team that's in a different situation after removing a lot of the money off of our cap and getting rid of some of the contracts that we had to get rid of."

But they're not there yet. They have to wait on a few things, like...

The Michkov mystery

Matvei Michkov had the entire Flyers fan base on notice last month, first with SKA St. Petersburg execs hinting at possible ways the top prospect could arrive to Philadelphia early, and then with videos of Michkov himself working out in Flyers gear.

The buzz has died down in the few weeks since, but the intrigue surrounding last summer's No. 7 overall draft pick and his projected NHL stardom is still very much now. 

For now, Michkov's KHL contract is still in place, but here is what Jones had to say about the current status:

"Yeah, it really doesn't affect it because, when we drafted him, the expectation was that he would finish his contract with SKA. We are listening, as well as reading many of your articles, and kind of following along. We have no update on it. We would welcome him with welcome arms. We absolutely love what he is going to bring to the Flyers. If that timeline is sped up, that would be wonderful, but we don’t know. We will watch along closely like you guys are as well, and when he arrives, our fanbase is going to be pretty excited about getting a highly talented player that is different then what we have right now. I think our fans are looking forward to that, for sure."

So for now, the situation is this: Michkov is still slated to play in the KHL this season, but when it comes to the Flyers, he could be in Russia one day and then Philadelphia the very next.

The Flyers, under Brière, Jones, and Hilferty, move quickly, and quietly – refer back to the Gauthier trade, Ivan Fedotov's arrival late this past season, and even the secrecy of the Flyers' meetings with Michkov at their training center in Voorhees last summer as examples.

Flyers future draft picks

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